Archive for December, 2018

The Ending of Another Season: 2018

December 31, 2018

Shohei Ohtani

Most years I do an end of season post in nine points (because there are nine innings) with some random thoughts on the just completed year. Here it is for 2018:

1. Congratulations to the Boston Red Sox. Between 2001 and 2018 Boston has four World Championships. Between 1901 and 1918, the BoSox won five. I can’t help but wonder if they have one more in them or if they’ll follow-up the 2018 run the same way they did the 1918 run. After losing in 1919, they let Babe Ruth go. If they fail to win in 1919, watch to see if Mookie Betts is traded.

2. Speaking of Betts. He had a heck of an 2018 and seems poised to continue at the highest level for some time. I’m not a particular fan of his, but I like to see good players excel.

3. The Dodgers lost the World Series for the second consecutive year. Dave Roberts played all the percentages again and the Bums blew it again. Improvise, Dave, just once, will ya.

4. I got to watch the Angels a couple of times this year. Mike Trout is terrific and Albert Pujols used to be terrific. I wonder if the Angels might consider dropping him to sixth or so in the lineup. He’s no longer a three or four hole hitter. It’s a shame that the newer fans don’t get to see just how good Pujols was at his height.

5. And while we’re on getting to see stuff, it’s getting increasingly difficult to actually watch a game. They’re getting longer and longer and getting to be more and more the same. Lots of home runs, lots of strikeouts, and a mind numbing number of pitchers. I’ve come to the conclusion that the average Major League right-handed pitcher can’t throw a ball to a left-handed hitter and that lefties can’t throw to a right-hander. I wonder how someone who can’t get out a hitter who swings from the opposite side of the plate managed to make the big leagues. I keep waiting for a 25 man roster that includes four infielders, three outfielders, two catchers, and 16 pitchers. Is it just me, or do all the things designed to speed up the game end up slowing it down? It’s probably me. It usually is.

6. How much you want to bet that Christian Yelich is happy to be out of South Florida? Now the question becomes is 2018 a fluke for him?

7. Congratulations are also in order for Vladimir Guerrero, Trevor Hoffman, Chipper Jones, Jack Morris, Alan Trammell, and Jim Thome for making the Hall of Fame as the class of 2018.

8. Harold Baines made the Hall of Fame, along with Lee Smith. Does anyone on the 2019 Veteran’s Committee know how to read a stat sheet?

9. Shohei Ohtani did the best Babe Ruth impression since the Babe himself. Let’s see how that holds up.

That’s a bit of a look at the 2018 season. Now on to 2019 and we’ll see if MLB notices it’s the 150th anniversary of the 1869 Cincinnati Red Stockings, the so-called First Professional Baseball Team and if they bother to note it’s the 100th anniversary of the Black Sox Scandal. Don’t hold your breath waiting for either.

The Road to Justice Runs Through the Ball Field

December 26, 2018

Like this, but with houses and yards on either side

One of the towns where I grew up was a moderate size burg out in the Texas Panhandle. It was nice, it was reasonably clean, it was basically crime free. It was a great place to play street baseball.

I lived in a fairly new addition on the east end of town, about a quarter-mile from the local Country Club. It was a solid middle class neighborhood with lots of kids close to my age. In the addition where I lived all the north-south streets were paved and all the houses faced on to them. All the east-west streets were unpaved because no one lived on them. They fronted the sides of houses, people’s backyards, and ran into an alley that separated the backyards of one street from the backyards of the next. This was great for playing baseball.

At the north end of the block where I lived was one of those streets. The people on the south side (my side) had no fence in their yard, neither did the people on the north side. Amazingly, the people who lived the next street east had no fence on either side, so we had the following arrangement: an open backyard, an unpaved street, another open backyard, then moving east you had the alley followed by another open backyard, an unpaved street, and one final open backyard. This allowed us to drop a stick for home plate in the middle of the street, a rock at the edge where a yard met the street for both first and third base, another stick in the street for second and yet one more stick in the street for the mound (sometimes it was pie tins or a piece of metal instead of rocks or sticks). What all this gave us was the most precious of all street baseball things, right and left field.

We had one problem, no backstop. It turned out one of the guys dad had an 8×4 piece of plywood that he’d nailed a 2×4 board to either end. None of us, even the guy who had this magnificent piece of lumber in his yard, knew why ole dad had done it, but it was never used, so we’d grab it, lug it down to the street, set it in place behind home, and lodge it in place with a couple of short 2x4s that someone always had in his backyard held in place by a few rocks. It worked well except when someone occasionally unloosed a fastball that struck the backstop just right and knocked it over. Eventually, of course, we broke it.

It did have one minor failing. It was in the middle of a public street. During an average summer morning or afternoon, there might be two cars come down the unpaved side street. Almost everyone used the paved main streets, but occasionally someone was inconsiderate enough to want to use our diamond for a drive. So, we’d grab the plywood backstop and the 2×4’s and lug them out of the way so the guy could drive down the street. The stick at home sometimes got run over, but there were other sticks. Mostly the people in the car were pleasant, patient, waved, and went on with their lives. Sometimes there’d be a jerk who’d tell us to “Hurry, you bunch of heathens” (OK, generally it was other words, but this is a family site), but as a rule no one yelled and we’d get the backstop in place and go about our game.

One August we were playing when a blue Chevy (OK, after 60 years I don’t remember either the color or make of the car, so I decided to disparage blue Chevys) turned the corner on the east side of the road and headed toward us. We saw him, started grabbing the backstop and moving it out of his way. He rolled right up to us and stopped. The guy inside was screaming “Get that damned thing out of my way” and other assorted things that had a lot of words with four letters in them. We moved as fast as we could, but one of the guys dropped his side of the north end and we had to get another guy to take his place. We got the backstop out of the way as quickly as we could but the guy was out of his mind yelling at us. It may have taken all of a minute, but he was more irate than anyone we could remember and why he just didn’t drive around us when we cleared one side of the street we couldn’t figure.

So we finished the day, went home, went on about our lives. That evening the family sat down to watch the news. One of the lead stories was about our town (the station was in another town). It seems some guy had robbed the pro shop at the Country Club and escaped in a blue Chevy. The local police, notified by the pro shop, had raced to block off the three major routes out of town and got to one (I forget which after all these years) and just as a blue Chevy approached. They nabbed the crook, recovered the money, and sent the lout to the local jail. The chief admitted that they were surprised how long it took for the bandit to get to the edge of town and speculated he wasn’t a local and didn’t know the streets well.

I like to think that we singlehandedly saved the fortune of the Country Club.

 

The All-Star Series

December 18, 2018

The first “All Star” Game

Baseball is odd. Among all the major team sports, it plays its games in a series. Football, soccer, hockey, basketball, play a game, take a break, play another (there are occasional exceptions), but baseball plays a handful of games (sometimes two or four, but usually three) together, then the teams move on to another venue and another set of, usually, three games.

It wasn’t always that way. At its inception, baseball, like the other sports, tended to play single games. One team would play a game against a second team, then move on to play, generally several days later, a game against a third team. But the modern system of “series baseball” took over and you always never see a game in isolation (except for a rainout) anymore. That began to change in 1858.

In 1858 the cities of New York and Brooklyn were separate (and would remain so until 1890). At that point, the best teams tended to cluster in either of the two towns. There were individual teams like the Athletic in Philadelphia or the Niagara in Buffalo, but no one had a group of top level teams except New York and Brooklyn. In New York there were the Mutual, the Gothams, the Knickerbockers. Brooklyn had the Excelsiors, the Eckford, the Atlantic. At some point someone was going to come up with the idea of city teams comprising the best players of each team, joining together to play the best players of another city (sort of an All-Star Game). That finally happened in 1858. But it wasn’t to be a single game, but was to be a series of games to determine which town, New York or Brooklyn had the better players.

Unlike a modern series, the 1858 all-star series was played over three months, one game in July, the second in August, and the final game in September. And unlike the current All Star Game, there were a series of games. So this initial “series” or initial “All Star Game” was a hybrid. To be fair to both sides, the games were held at the Fashion Place Racetrack (a horse racing track) in Queens.

The names today are mostly forgotten. Harry Wright played center field for New York in the initial game. Theodore Van Cott, unknown today, was the Gothams ace. Joe Leggett of the Excelsiors was the catcher for Brooklyn. He later became famous as Jim Creighton’s catcher. Dickie Pearce and Folkert Boerum of the Atlantic also played. Some historians credit Pearce with inventing the modern positioning of the shortstop and Boerum with working toward the invention of catcher’s equipment (neither can be entirely verified.

The games were high scoring affairs in comparison to modern baseball. New York won the first game 22-18 (lots of touchdowns, lots of missed kicks) with Van Cott leading the team with four runs scored and making only two outs (Harry Wright led the team with five outs). Excelsior second baseman, John Holder, had the game’s only home run. In game two the Brooklyn team returned the favor outscoring New York 29-8.

That made the September game the deciding game of the series. Daniel “Doc” Adams, Knickerbockers shortstop, umpired the game (remember, umpires in 1858 didn’t do all the same things they do now so an umpire with a rooting interest wasn’t as big a problem as it would be now). Joe Gelston, Eagles shortstop, led off New York’s part of the game with a home run and the team went on to pile up seven runs in the first. Union outfielder Joseph Pinckney hit another homer for New York later in the game, and the New York team ran up a 29-18 score to take game three and the championship two games to one.

The series would not be repeated. As the 1860s began, the Brooklyn clubs, particularly the Atlantic, began to dominate the baseball scene and not many New York teams wanted to face a Brooklyn all-star team that was composed mostly of players from the Atlantic. But it provides us with a look at a long ago series of games that would become more common and ushered in the idea of an all-star team.

The Limits of Knowledge

December 13, 2018

With the recent election of Harold Baines to the Hall of Fame there is a lot of comment going on about the entire election process. I have to admit to having added my share. But whether the election is problematic or not, and I feel it is, it brings up some things we need to note.

Over at the Hall of Miller and Eric website, a site each of you should go visit often, there’s an article that’s titled “Harold Baines is the Single Worst Hall of Fame Choice Ever,” written by the Miller of Miller and Eric. On the face of just the headline, that sounds, considering some of the earlier Hall picks, like one of the most idiotic articles ever written. But if you delve below the headline and actually read the article, he makes a great deal of sense. His basic point is that with the glut of information available today versus what was known 20 or 30 or 50 years ago, Baines is a more terrible choice than anyone else, because we have more knowledge than we had back that 20 or 30 or 50 years ago.

The Hall of Fame was founded in the mid-1930s. The first crop of inductees was a fairly obvious pick (Ty Cobb, Walter Johnson, Christy Mathewson, Babe Ruth, and Honus Wagner alphabetically). All but Mathewson were still alive and most of the voters had seen much of the career of all five. But frankly, there wasn’t a lot of “modern” information available. By modern, I mean the huge log of statistics. Macmillan hadn’t yet published its Encyclopedia, Bill James wasn’t born, BaseballReference.Com wasn’t even a cock-eyed idea yet. What you had were newspaper accounts if you could find them, a handful of Spaudling Guides, Reach Guides, the Elias people and whatever else you could find. And you had the “I” and “eye” tests (“I saw him with my own eyes”). All of those were well and good, but weren’t at all complete.

Back a few years ago I ran a series of articles postulating a Hall of Fame as if it was erected in Cincinnati in 1901 and inducted at least one person each year until the real Hall of Fame was built. I was allowed to use only the information that I could find for the period. There was no WAR or OPS+ or triple slash line. There weren’t even saves yet. There were frequently no walk or strikeout totals. Sometimes there was no fielding information available at all. Frankly, I thought I did a pretty good job with what I had. But I also realized that I was putting in some guys that probably didn’t deserve a spot in Cincinnati’s hallowed halls because I have access today to information unavailable to me in 1910 that told me “You probably got this one wrong, Slick.” One thing I didn’t have available for use was the “Eye” or “I” test, even I’m not that old.

And those sorts of things caused the original Hall voters, and the people who followed them to make some interesting choices. Apparently there were articles at the time (I’ve run across a couple old newspapers that say it) indicating that Candy Cummings invented the curve ball. Maybe he did, maybe he didn’t, but the people voting had that info and used it to put in what to me is a terrible choice. There are other choices like that, not to mention the cronyism that has plagued the Hall voting since its beginning.

It’s tough to call Baines the “worst choice ever” based on who’s in the Hall of Fame, but you have to give something of a pass to the guys who didn’t have the information we have available today. They made mistakes, but many of them were in good faith. But when you take a look at how much information we have today the Baines pick becomes, as the Hall of Miller and Eric guys point out, pretty much indefensible. You can, if you want, make the argument that stats are subject to interpretation and subject to which you determine are important and which are not. And that’s true. But it would take a strange and long set of interpretations and determinations to put Baines in the Hall.

And before I finish I have a complaint. I’ve read a few people attacking Baines himself for his election. Quit that, people. You want to yell at someone for it, yell at the group that put together the ballot or at the 12 men who voted for Baines, not at Baines himself. All he did was put up numbers and play a game he loved. He didn’t create this problem.

Stumbles

December 10, 2018

Lee Smith while with St. Louis

The latest iteration of the Veteran’s Committee just completed its voting for the Hall of Fame. We have two winners and a very close. Congratulations are in order for Lee Smith who was a unanimous selection for the Hall and for Harold Baines who made it in with the minimum vote. Lou Piniella missed enshrinement by a single vote.

How do I feel about this? I’ve come to the conclusion that the Veteran’s Committee stumbled again. It’s not like Lee Smith is a terrible choice. As a reliever he was good at his job, having at one time held the saves record. It seems “saves” are the one number that people fixate on when it comes to relievers and if you held the record, you had to be pretty good at your job. I recall that earlier I predicated Smith would get in, but I also noted he would not get my vote (as if he cares what I think). Over his years on the ballot, he managed to peak around 50% of the voting. So I ask myself if the Hall of Fame is strengthened by the addition of Lee Smith. Probably not, at least not significantly. Is it weakened? Maybe, but again probably not significantly. There are a lot worse players in the Hall of Fame.

Among those is Harold Baines. Baines was a good, solid player who at one time held the White Sox record for hits (I don’t know if he still does) and hit .289 with 384 home runs, 1628 RBIs, and 38.7 WAR, with a WAR peak of 4.3 in 1984 (the only time he was above 3.5–he had one 3.4). That 38.7 ties him with Juan Gonzalez and Magglio Ordonez, both of which should, apparently, start composing their Hall of Fame induction speeches (Yuck). At least Gonzalez won a couple of home run titles and was a two-time MVP. Baines managed to stay on the writer’s ballot less than 10 years and peaked around 6% of the vote. Asking the same question, “does the election of Harold Baines strengthen the Hall of Fame?” I get the feeling it doesn’t. Does it weaken the Hall, again, probably not, because there are worse players in the Hall of Fame now, but it doesn’t help.

Frankly, I’d have been much happier had the Baines/Piniella vote been reversed. Lou Piniella was a good player (although I’ll admit Baines was better), but he was also a fine manager. It seems the Veteran’s Committee stumbled again.

The Wages of Sin

December 4, 2018

1919 Chicago White Sox team picture with the “Black Sox” circled

Next year is special in Major League Baseball. The powers that be in MLB might not tell you that, but it’s true. Next season marks the 100th season since the Black Sox Scandal almost destroyed the Major Leagues.

It’s not like it’s one of those occasions that MLB wants to celebrate and I know they won’t. But I wonder if they will even acknowledge it or admit to it. It is the darkest stain on the game itself. I would argue that segregation was more, or at least as much, a societal problem as it was a baseball problem. But the Black Sox throwing the World Series is a baseball problem.

I’ve never been quite sure what I think of Judge Landis’ decision to ban all eight of the Black Sox permanently. I understand the reasoning, but I’m not sure what I think of the action itself. “Get rid of the bums. Ride ’em out of town on a rail forever.” It’s a simple answer to a complex question, but it did have the advantage of cleaning up the greatest scandal in the game. By taking it a step further and banning another 15 or so guys (Bill James came up with 23 names) the message went out loud and clear that deliberately tanking a game was anathema and would not be tolerated.

But it didn’t solve two of the fundamental problems that led to the Scandal. First, it didn’t find fault with the owners who’d kept salaries low, treated their players like cattle, and discarded them when they’d used them up. Secondly, it didn’t attack the salary question at all. The winners share in the 1919 World Series was $1102.51 and the loser’s share came in at $671.09. According to BaseballReference.Com Joe Jackson’s salary in 1919 was $6000. So which looks better to you $6000 plus $1102.51 ($7102.51) or his salary ($6000), the loser’s share (671.09), the bribe money (he got $5000 out of a promised $10,000)? My guess is a lot of players, not just the Black Sox, would have seen $11,671.09 as quite a windfall. It would take until the 1970s to even begin to address this problem. Try putting together enough money today to double Mike Trout’s salary as a way of bribing him to throw a World Series. And in none of this am I implying I believe Jackson did or did not participate in the Scandal.

I’m going to be watching closely to see how/if MLB deals with the 1919 Black Sox. My guess is that it will be people like my readers and I who will make sure people know about it. What am I bet?